Uncertainties over China’s intentions behind its rapidly rising defense spending — or how it will use the new capabilities — are seen as a source of potential instability in Asia. Participants at the Jan. 23 symposium discussed whether this will cause a “security dilemma” in the region and how China’s neighbors have responded so far.

M. Taylor Fravel, an assistant MIT professor of political science, said China’s military objectives can be divided into five categories — regime security, territorial integrity, unification with Taiwan, regional stability and maritime security.

The People’s Liberation Army is “not a national army” but a “party army,” one of whose major functions is to maintain the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, he said. Regional security is the key to its future growth as the economy integrates with the global supply chain and becomes intertwined with its neighbors, while maritime security is essential to the protection of China’s wealthy coastal regions, he added.

One of the capabilities that China needs to achieve these objectives is “internal control” within the country through such measures as deployment of troops near key population centers and creation of a paramilitary force, Fravel said.

Territorial integrity, national unification and regional stability call for an “area denial” capability along China’s periphery — or the ability to hinder an adversary’s use of space or facilities — as well as limited regional force projection — or the ability to sustain and deploy forces from China’s borders, he added.

Fravel noted that people are worried about China’s defense spending because they are unsure what kind of power it will be in the future. “We have a general idea of the capabilities that China would like to acquire, but no sense yet on how they will be used,” he said.

A key question is whether this might create a “security dilemma” in East Asia, he noted.

“If one state seeks to improve its ability to defend itself, it often makes other states nervous (because the effort) often appears offensive and threatening,” he said. “China views the development of its maritime denial capability in defensive terms — in defending its claim over Taiwan and defending its sea lanes of communication. How do other navies in the region feel when Chinese surface task forces routinely patrol the East China Sea, South China Sea and other areas? They will most likely not be viewed as defensive, but threatening and offensive.”

Akihiko Tanaka, a University of Tokyo professor of international politics, said a lack of transparency in China’s decision-making in military-related affairs might contribute to this security dilemma.

China’s military-related decisions are made by the Central Military Committee, where the only civilian member is President Hu Jintao, Tanaka said. “I’m not sure if Mr. Hu is fully briefed about the military’s decisions,” he said as he cited Chinese behavior in recent incidents such as its refusal of a port call by the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk, the antisatellite missile test as well as intrusions of Chinese submarines into Japanese waters.

“This opaqueness could increase the possibility of a spiraling of the security dilemma. You are drawn into the security dilemma partly because you’re uncertain about the other’s thought pattens,” he noted.

Japan and South Korea have so far not engaged in overt balancing against the growing Chinese military capability — partly to avoid this dilemma and also because they hope to constructively engage China, said Chikako Kawakatsu Ueki, an associate professor at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies.

But Ueki expressed concern that there has been very little coordination between Japan and South Korea as they responded differently to the rise of China. “Coordination is key to stability in the region,” and coordination among Japan, South Korea and their mutual ally, the U.S., “does not mean containing China,” she said.

One source of Japan’s concern is China’s power projection capabilities, Ueki noted. The 1,500-km range of its Sukhoi 27 fighter jets can possibly challenge Japan’s air superiority over its offshore islands while Chinese missiles targeted at Taiwan also cover Okinawa, she said.

Ueki said that while few Japanese are worried about an outright attack by China, there is an “unease and concern that the growing military capability might lead to China’s increasing political leverage” in the region.

Since the mid-to-late 1990s, Japan has strenghtened its alliance with the U.S. — and has taken part in the U.S.-led global war on terror — partly as a hedge against a potentially aggressive China, she noted.

Japan has also acquired “dual-use” defense capabilities, Ueki said. The reconnaissance satellite and the joint missile defense program with the U.S. is primarily targeted against the threat of North Korean missiles but “can also be used for China,” she said.

South Korea is similarly concerned with an increase in China’s political leverage due to its greater military capability, but is also worried about an entanglement in a possible U.S.-China conflict, and rivalry between China and Japan, Ueki pointed out.

A 2005 “Balancer of Northeast Asia Initiative” says that South Korea will try to seek a “balancer” role between Japan and China, and a mediator to improve China’s relations with Japan and the U.S., she said. Such a position may be based on South Korea’s fear of entrapment deriving from its history of frequent invasion by its neighbors, but it may also be unique to the outgoing President Roh Moo Hyun and may change under the incoming administration of Lee Myung Bank, she added.